Sentencing Discounts for Parents? A Guest Post
We have recently featured two guest posts (here and here) by the authors of a new book called Privilege or Punish: Criminal Justice and the Challenge of Family Ties. The authors are Ethan Leib, who is a scholar-in-residence at Columbia Law School, and an associate professor of law at the University of California-Hastings College of the Law; Dan Markel, the D’Alemberte Professor of Law at the Florida State University in Tallahassee; and Jennifer Collins, a professor of law at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem. Leib and Markel usually blog at Prawfs.com. Markel has offered to send interested parties a free PDF of their new book upon request. This is their penultimate post.
Should Parents Who Offend Receive Sentencing Discounts?
A Guest Post
By Jennifer Collins, Ethan J. Leib, and Dan Markel
Many states expressly tell judges to calibrate a sentence based, in part, on one’s family ties and responsibilities in sentencing offenders. Thus, offenders who are parents to minors or caregivers to spouses or elderly parents may, depending on the jurisdiction, be in a position to receive a sharp discount from the punishment they might otherwise receive. Not only does this pattern of sentencing discounts facilitate ad hoc disparities between offenders who are otherwise similarly situated across cases, but it also hastens to create inequalities between persons involved in the very same offense. Even in the generally more restrictive federal context, courts have found ways to extend discounts to offenders deemed to have extraordinary “family ties and responsibilities.”
Our view is that sentencing discounts for offenders with family ties require scrutiny and, in some cases, re-tailoring, and in other cases, rejection.
A person who commits a crime can reasonably foresee that, if prosecuted and punished, his punishment will affect not only himself but also his family. Extending a discount to an offender for a reason unrelated to his crime constitutes an undeserved windfall. In addition, giving benefits to defendants with family ties in the currency of sentencing discounts will also, on the margin, incentivize this class of defendants to seek out greater criminal opportunities, or they will be recruited or pressed into action by others.
Still, incarcerating a defendant with significant family responsibilities unquestionably imposes tremendous costs on innocent family members, and those costs are most severe when the defendant is an irreplaceable caregiver to vulnerable family members. Therefore, although we advance the unusual position — taken primarily and unpopularly by the federal government’s sentencing guidelines — that, ordinarily, a defendant’s family ties and responsibilities should not serve as a basis for a lighter sentence, we are sensitive to the serious arguments made by proponents of sentencing departures for those with significant and irreplaceable care-giving responsibilities. These arguments merit attention and amplification.
What About the Children?
It can be argued that depriving children of parents in order to incarcerate the parents for the purpose of punishment is itself a criminogenic (crime-creating) policy. Second, notwithstanding the culpability of the offenders and the harm suffered by the victims of their crimes, it can be argued that the harm is already done; the state should not inflict its own harms on the offender’s children or other persons benefiting from the offender’s care-giving. Indeed, if we urge offenders to bear responsibility for the reasonably foreseeable consequences of their actions, so must the social planners who create institutions of punishment bear such responsibility.
By that logic, our compassion and concern should properly extend to the harm imposed on innocent third parties by the state’s punishments of the care-giving offender. We are therefore willing to agree that compelling circumstances arise when an offender is the sole and irreplaceable caregiver for minors or for aged or ailing persons with whom the defendant has an established relationship of care-giving. Here, however, we reject the suggestion that the law should only value the traditional familial relationship in the context of any accommodations made to “irreplaceable caregivers.” What matters from our vantage point is that the defendant is actually serving a critical social role. We recognize our approach may incur slightly higher “information costs” by abandoning the simple proxy of family status, but this approach in practice is not apt to be more costly than the extant costs of verifying the reality of familial care-giving responsibilities.
Ordinarily, however, we think that harms to innocent third parties should be ameliorated through the institutions of distributive justice, not criminal justice. In an attractive polity, a child without a parent should receive state and communal aid regardless of whether the parent is not around due to sickness, death, or imprisonment. But where the state has failed its obligations of distributive justice, it would not be unreasonable to allow courts to tailor the punishment of caregiver offenders in a way that mitigates third-party harms without simultaneously elevating the offender’s status in violation of the principle of equal justice under law.
For that reason, and assuming the crime was severe enough that some form of incarceration is deemed necessary, it may be appropriate for legislatures to authorize greater use of time-delayed sentencing to offenders with irreplaceable caregiving responsibilities. Under this proposal, then, if an offender is the irreplaceable caregiver for children, the offender in a time-delayed sentencing scheme would defer his incarceration until after the children reach the age of majority or until alternative and feasible care can be arranged. In the case of caring for aging parents or ill spouses, the incarceration may be delayed until the person receiving the care is deceased, improves in health, or is able to obtain care from another person or entity.
During the period that the incarceration is deferred, the offender would still be punished through the imposition of supervised release conditions. For example, the defendant’s freedom of movement would be dramatically limited so that only work and necessary chores (i.e., taking one’s child to the doctor) would be permitted. Electronic bracelets or other tracking devices could be used to ensure compliance. Additionally, during the time of deferral, the state could attach extensive community service obligations or other release conditions, such as drug testing. Failure to abide by the conditions would lead to more severe punishment than would be experienced absent the deferral of the sentence to minimize possible exploitation by the defendant.
Of course, as we alluded to earlier in our two previous posts, we are also worried about the ways in which the criminal law unreflectively reinforces biases in favor of heterosexual and repro-normative family units. Our view is that if it is made available, then time-deferred incarceration should not be restricted to only those giving care to those with a blood relationship or recognized marriage. That would deny the dignity of thick care-giving relationships in a number of contexts (gay families, for instance) that also warrant the liberal state’s equal respect and concern. Thus, in our view, if the offender has been in a voluntary and established relationship of caregiving, then that should be the critical issue.
As you can see, there are many issues when it comes to finally implementing the mottoes of those who wish to promote families. In the criminal justice sphere especially, privileges and burdens are distributed without a whole lot of careful thinking. Our book is an effort to start thinking about what we are doing when we too quickly use family status in our criminal justice system.